Podcast: Critical Mass

Frank Wilson on books!

Virtual Memories Show: Frank Wilson – Critical Mass

“We were taught with the idea that these books meant something, that it was something vital to your life, that if you read these books you could understand what was going on around you better than you could if you didn’t. I don’t know if anyone’s doing that now.”

Time to wrap up our August book critics miniseries! Following our conversations with Michael Dirda and Jessa Crispin, we have Frank Wilson, who’s been reviewing books for FIFTY YEARS. Frank, who launched the Books, Inq. blog in 2005, talks about the changes in book culture over that half-century, the marvel of Tolstoy, his picks for most underrated and most overrated authors, the perils of using big-name writers as book reviewers, and more!

“I think that blogging has wiped out the book reviewing business but it does wonders for the literary business.”

We also talk about his life as a Catholic Taoist, the similarities of poetry and religion, whether Catholics can write good novels, the biggest gap in his literary background, when it’s okay to break the rules of Haiku (and other forms), and why he thinks Willa Cather is truly the Great American Novelist!

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

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About our Guest

Frank Wilson is celebrating his 50th year of book reviewing. His reviews have appeared in a number of newspapers and magazines, but mainly the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he served as book editor until 2008. In 2005, he launched Books, Inq.: The Epilogue, a blog about books and publishing. He has an entertaining bio over here.

Credits: This episode’s music is Sinner’s Prayer by Ray Charles (see, because of Frank’s Catholicism and belief in the fallenness of — oh, never mind). The conversation was recorded at Mr. Wilson’s home in Philadelphia on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a brand-new Zoom H5 digital recorder. The intro and outro were also recorded on that equipment, in a room at the Courtyard Marriott in Creve Coeur, MO. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Mr. Wilson by me.

Podcast: Euphonic Sounds

Lynne Sharon Schwartz on The Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories – season 4 episode 16 – Euphonic Sounds

“In the late 1970s, I wanted to write against the grain, so I wrote about a marriage that lasted a long time, with all the strife and stresses.”

Novelist, essayist, poet, short story writer, and translator Lynne Sharon Schwartz sat down with me to talk about her newest essay collection, This Is Where We Came In: Intimate Glimpses (Counterpoint), but we talked about a lot more in our hour! Listen in to learn how she and her husband began recording literary readings by authors like James Baldwin, Philip Roth, John Updike, William Styron in the ’60s, and how they’ve re-launched those recordings. We also discuss how second-wave feminism convinced her to pursue a writing career, how her ear for music influences her writing, why she swears by audiobook reader David Case, and how Margaret Atwood once dropped the boom on Norman Mailer. Give it a listen!

“Although I identify with feminism, my literary tastes don’t divide into men and women; it’s the ones who are concerned with language and delight in language, rather than their gender, that I read.”

We also talk about her love of digressive essays, the joys of translation, her travel-anxiety, the difficulty in getting a book of essays published, why W.G. Sebald is one of her favorite authors, and how — kinda like last week’s guest, Caitlin McGurk — she got involved in bringing back lost women writers.

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Lynne Sharon Schwartz is the author of more than 20 books, including novels, short story collections, non-fiction, poetry, and translations. Her new essay collection, This Is Where We Came In: Intimate Glimpses, was just published by Counterpoint. Her first novel, Rough Strife, was nominated for a National Book Award and the PEN/Hemingway First Novel Award. Her other novels include The Writing on the Wall; In the Family Way: An Urban Comedy; Disturbances in the Field; and Leaving Brooklyn (Rediscovery), nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She and her husband Harry have launched Calliope Author Readings, which offers lovers of literature a rare opportunity to hear great 20th century American authors interpreting their own works. Ms. Schwartz has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, and the New York State Foundation for the Arts. Her stories and essays have been reprinted in many anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Essays. She has taught writing and literature at colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad. She lives in New York City.

Credits: This episode’s music is Gladiolas by Scott Joplin. The conversation was recorded at Ms. Schwartz’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Ms. Schwartz by me.

Podcast: Stick and Move

Sarah Deming on The Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories – season 4 episode 11 – Stick and Move

“Claressa Shields was the first boxer who showed me that women can be artists in the ring, like men. It was kind of like the first time I read Virginia Woolf.”

Essayist, boxer, novelist, chef and more, Sarah Deming joins The Virtual Memories Show to talk about yoga’s role as a gateway drug into boxing, winning a Golden Gloves tournament, the joys of watching a great fighter, her literary idols, the miracle of Bernard Hopkins’ longevity, and how she found her soul.

“I really like the people who write about boxing with empathy. There’s a lot of subtly disrespectful boxing writing. I think it’s essentially because of the threat the intellectual feels from the athlete, and I think racism underlies it, too.”

We also talk about the spiteful inspiration for her first novel, the thread connecting boxers and adult film stars, the magic in the mundane, and why it’s almost impossible to write something boring about sex or a fight! Give it a listen! (And check out these wonderful essays Sarah wrote about skydiving and vodka-peddling!)

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Sarah Deming is the author of the children’s novel Iris, Messenger (Harcourt, 2007) about the Greek gods in suburbia. Her essays have appeared in the Threepenny Review, the Huffington Post, and WNYC.com. In 2013, she won a Pushcart Prize and was listed as notable in Best American Essays. Sarah has ghostwritten two erotic novels and assisted on ultramarathoner Scott Jurek’s memoir Eat and Run. She was a writer/researcher for CNBC’s boxing coverage of the 2012 Olympics. Before becoming a writer, Sarah was a Golden Gloves boxing champion, chef, and yoga teacher. She volunteers as a strength/conditioning coach for young boxers at the Atlas Cops & Kids Gym in Brooklyn and teaches yoga at New York Health and Racquet Club.

Credits: This episode’s music is Brainy by The National. The conversation was recorded at Ms. Deming’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones, feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded on Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Garage Band. Photo of Ms. Deming by me.

Podcast: Wine, Women, and Novel-Writing

Charles Blackstone on The Virtual Memories Show

Virtual Memories – season 3 episode 23 – Wine, Women, and Novel-Writing

“Restaurants follow the opposite direction of stories: they’re like finding a book of blank pages and trying to come up with something to fill the space. That’s not how it goes with stories.”

Charles Blackstone, managing editor of Bookslut, joins us to talk about his new novel, Vintage Attraction, out this week from Pegasus Books! We recorded in Chicago last April, so he wasn’t in full book-publicity mode, and I hadn’t read the book. Instead, our conversation veers all over the place, covering his descent into post-grad career madness, the problems with getting mired in literary theory, what he does at Bookslut, how he deals with the sheer volume of books published every day, Chicago’s restaurant culture, the similarities between deconstruction and molecular gastronomy, and how to master the party-throwing art of taking a guest’s coat while handing them a beverage.

But we really do talk about Vintage Attraction (which has great blurbs from Jay McInerney and Gary Shteyngart)! I promise!

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! Related conversations:

Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!

About our Guest

Charles Blackstone is the managing editor of Bookslut, as well as the co-editor of the literary anthology The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together (University of Texas Press, 2008) and the author of the novel, The Week You Weren’t Here (Dzanc and Low Fidelity Press, 2005). His short fiction has appeared in Esquire‘s Napkin Fiction Project (the piece was also selected for the &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Fiction anthology), Lewis University’s Jet Fuel Review, and the University of Maine’s Stolen Island. His short plays have been produced by Victory Gardens and Lifeline Theaters. He is married to Master Sommelier and television personality Alpana Singh. He currently is a ghostwriter, coach, and editor for clients at all stages of the publication process in private practice. He and his wife live with their pug, Haruki Murakami, in downtown Chicago. His new novel is Vintage Attraction.

Credits: This episode’s music is Graceless by The National. The conversation was recorded at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago on a pair of AT2020 cardioid condenser mics feeding into a Zoom H4n recorder. The intro and outro were recorded in the InterCity Hotel in Frankfurt on a Samson Meteor USB Studio mic. File-splitting was done in Audacity and all editing and processing was done in Garage Band on a Macbook Air. Photo of Charles Blackstone by me.

I Don’t Know How She Does It . . .

“She,” in this case, being Joyce Carol Oates, who has lived with a diagnosis of tachycardia for the past 40+ years. I recall reading an interview with her a bazillion years ago in which she mentioned that the heart condition could kill her at any time, and that the knowledge of that potential sudden death helped her get over any anxiety she had about writing.

But maybe I’m misremembering that last part. Since getting out of the ER last Friday, I’ve been on a rollercoaster. The heart/lung symptoms that prompted the ER visit changed by the beginning of the week; the “weird fluttering” is gone, but I found myself having episodes where I was yawning repeatedly, almost compulsively, never quite able to get enough air. I’ve got a cardiologist appt. early next week, and I’m hoping to get confirmation that whatever-this-is is stress- and/or allergy-driven, and that my heart and lungs are fine.

It’s been a very difficult stretch for me, especially because I spend so much time alone. If I’m not talking to other people (or the dogs), I talk to myself. I’ve spent much of the past week with two voices in my head: one yelling, “You’re a hypochondriac!” and the other yelling, “You’re going to have a heart attack and die tonight!”

(There’s a third voice, actually: my dad’s. He’s been calling every day to see how I’m doing, which is kinda astonishing. At first, I was short with him, because I didn’t want to compare our respective conditions, or because I’m too cool, or because I didn’t want to let him in to see the dread that I’m experiencing. It took me a few days to really get the notion of, “This is your father, man. And, sure, his behavior in your childhood was a big part of the reason that you developed all that guardedness and anxiety, but he’s calling you because he loves you and can’t bear the thought of losing you, even if he can’t say that.” Tomorrow, we’ll go to the Chabad service so he can pray for his parents’ souls. I shouldn’t be writing on Kol Nidre, but I want to get this out because I haven’t really addressed how I’ve been feeling.)

All that anxiety magnified the severity of my symptoms, making it feel like I’ve got a time-bomb in my chest, making it more difficult for me to draw a solid breath and feel at ease, making me believe that the end is nigh. Is my right hand going numb because of an aneurysm or because I haven’t eaten for 8 hours? That crick in my neck from sleeping badly or is it an artery about to go? That stabbing sensation in my chest? Oh, wait, that’s just the itchiness from the hair growing back where they had to shave it for the stress test.

But when I could just talk to people about quotidian stuff, it would take me out of myself and I’d feel just fine. Either the symptoms would abate or I just become less aware of them.

As long as I don’t think about it, I think I’ll be okay.

So one part of me has been trying to maintain my routines and act as though nothing serious is happening, while another part is trying to total up all the things I should’ve done in my life and what I’ll still have time to do. I mean, what am I supposed to do? Quit work and go to an ashram? Be calm and carry on? I’ve got people out the wazoo telling me to relax, not to stress so much, but none of them offer to do my work for me. (And it was a lot of work, with a 150-page issue that had to go out by Wednesday in order to print and ship in time for a big show in Germany that I’m supposed to attend in a few weeks.)

On Tuesday night, things got so bad that I was afraid that I wouldn’t make it through to morning. I found myself regretting, of all things, that I wouldn’t get to read the newest issue of Love & Rockets. I’d heard that Jaime Hernandez had a monumental story in it, and it saddened me that I wouldn’t see it.

There weren’t a lot of other regrets that occurred to me on Tuesday night. I regretted being sharp with Amy during the drive home from the train station that night, but I knew she understood how shaken and scared I was. Once home I decided that, if this was to be my last night alive, then I’d go out with a little joy: having a fine gin & tonic and watching some baseball.

And if it turned out that I was being a hypochondriac, then I figured the G&T would relax me a bit. And I’m a long way past getting worked up about a Yankees game.

I felt fine on Wednesday morning, and pushed on with a positive outlook most of the day. When I got home from the office (and that work-stress from the first three days of this week didn’t help me any), the annual issue of L&R was waiting for me at the door. I took the dogs for a walk around the block, then fed them and lay on the sofa with the new book. I cried like a baby at the final pages. It was that good and I’m that emotionally raw.

Now (Friday night, just about one week from when I left the ER) I’m feeling a million times better. I still get short of breath/yawny on occasion, but I’m almost certain it’s due to anxiety. Among the lessons I learned this past week, the big one is that my anxiety is so much more vast and subtle than I ever imagined. It’s one thing to actively think, “I’m going to die,” and trigger a fear-reaction. But no: I found myself falling into those thoughts only after these episodes began. I got a real taste of how dread works behind the scenes, the chimera obscura. The longer I went without talking to someone or opening myself up to something like music (even when the iPod in my car thought it would be funny to shuffle up Breathe or Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?) or a good podcast or some silliness with the dogs, the more this dread gathered.

Walking the dogs around the neighborhood last night, I wondered what it would be like if I could get those two voices in my head in harmony. What if I could be reconciled that I’d been worrying over nothing, but also retain that immanence unto death? Would there be some way to use it, like Ms. Oates did, to let that specter pervade me, guide me past my dissipated routines, let me face the fear of the end and shatter all this anxiety?

Can I write like there’s no tomorrow?